Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Statements by Senators

Western Australia: Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015

1:05 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to talk about a threat to our democracy and our community that is happening in Western Australia. I talk about the new anti-protest laws that the Barnett government has introduced. If these laws had been in place in the past, there are things in Western Australia that we cherish now as part of our community that would not be there—for example, our old-growth forests, which are now such a boon to Western Australia due to their tourist values and the fact that they protect so much biodiversity. Ningaloo Reef is another example, as potentially are Mount Lesueur, some of our clearing laws and some of our wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain, where only around 15 per cent of the original wetlands are left. These things that we now cherish so much are there because of the work of the community and because of the peaceful protests and campaigns that they ran to save them. This work is the very thing that the Barnett government does not want to happen as it moves to facilitate to an even greater extent the development of Western Australia and to give a free ride to developers that want to damage our natural environment in particular.

In February this year the Barnett government proposed its new antidemocracy laws in Western Australia with the introduction of the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015. If this bill passes it will criminalise offences of 'physically preventing a lawful activity' and 'possessing a thing for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity'. It will also criminalise 'the creation or maintenance of ... a physical barrier' to prevent a lawful activity and protests that create 'a risk of injury to a person, including the offender, or of damage to property'—very wide, very vague and very prone to misuse. Offences carry serious penalties of prison of up to one year and a fine of up to $12,000. In certain circumstances the penalty for preventing a lawful activity can rise to two years and $24,000—excessive, when we are talking about ordinary members of the community who are just trying to ensure that a particular area is protected, that the environment is protected. I am thinking here of James Price Point, for example, or remote communities.

There is huge opposition to this bill in my home state, and the Greens strongly oppose this bill. I want to congratulate my state colleagues—WA Greens MPs Lynn MacLaren and Robin Chapple, who have worked tirelessly opposing this bill and bringing to the attention of the community and the parliament the flaws of this process. We will continue to oppose this legislation. One of the things the bill has done is unite a diverse group of people and organisations in opposition. The WA Farmers' Federation, for example, is standing side by side with environment groups to oppose this legislation; 82 organisations have signed a letter, a joint statement, in opposition to this bill. They can see the damage it could potentially do. These are organisations such as the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission, the Anglican Diocese of Perth, the Uniting Church of Perth and the Justice, Ecology and Development Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Perth—as I said, a wide variety of organisations that are saying to the WA government, 'This is not just law'. Many legal and constitutional experts are urging the parliament not to pass the proposed legislation, including the Human Rights Law Centre, which is also deeply concerned that the legislation could well be unconstitutional.

The bill is yet another attack on our fundamental civil rights and democratic freedoms in Australia. Recently we also saw the coalition's blatant demonisation of citizens who stand up to protect the environment and our communities with its Radicalisation Awareness Kit for school students, including the case study of 'Karen' the radical environmentalist, who they used as an example of what could lead to radicalisation—and alternative music, and the alternative music scene, could act as a gateway to radicalisation and terrorism. Again, it is blatant demonisation of people who stand up to protect the environment, to protect our communities. These people are in the sights of state and federal governments.

If this bill were to pass it would seriously impede direct action in campaigns on the ground in WA, such as Lock the Gate, where farmers are protesting to stop fracking on their lands, and Rethink the Link, where the federal government and the state government are combining to try to drive a freeway, Roe 8, through the Beeliar Wetlands. As I said earlier, we have around 15 per cent of our original wetlands left on the Swan coastal plain, and these governments, state and federal, want to drive a freeway through those wetlands. It will also impact on those who have been working to stop the closure of Aboriginal communities.

Both state and federal governments are putting big business interests and the facilitation of more development in Western Australia above the community and above the right to protect our environment. They refuse to listen to the voice of the community and are now threatening to even further erode the community's ability to stand up to harmful decisions and to protest and protect the important areas we love so dearly in Western Australia and throughout Australia. Nowhere is this clearer than in the threats these laws could present to those who are working to protect our remote communities.

This bill criminalises peaceful protest. This is in itself an attack on fundamental civil rights. Australians have a long and proud history of peaceful demonstration, which has been instrumental in securing the rights that many of us now take for granted, including the right to vote, the right to a fair wage, the eight-hour working day and the protection of the places we love so much, such as Ningaloo Reef and the old-growth forests in the south-west of Western Australia. These things would not have been achieved without citizens engaging in peaceful protest. This legislation reverses the onus of proof, unjustifiably removing the presumption of innocence of citizens. And as the Criminal Lawyers Association said, it is a fundamental cornerstone of criminal justice that an accused person bears no onus to prove their innocence. This is what this legislation overturns. This bill applies on private land and on public land, so a farmer locking the gate to fracking could be convicted of the offence of physically preventing lawful activity for protecting their own farm. This is what the Barnett government wants to do. It is no wonder that the farmers' federation is standing alongside environmentalists and community activists to oppose these laws.

The very broad terms of this legislation are unbelievable. It is extraordinarily vague in its language, which makes it very dangerous in its application. The wider the scope, the more freedom the police have and the more open it is to misuse. For example, the offence of 'possessing a thing for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity' defines a 'thing' only by the intended use of the article. This criminalises the possession of ordinary everyday items and is so broad that it could apply to the possession of a pair of shoes, for example, or a property owner owning a gate, even if they never actually lock it, so long as the circumstances give rise to a reasonable suspicion that they intend to lock it.

We can see the farcical nature of these laws. This is overreach. The police and Western Australian authorities already have laws that can be used in circumstances where they are needed. It is clear that these laws are not needed and that they are an overreach. In fact, they are potentially unconstitutional. The Barnett government should withdraw these laws. They should listen to their community. They should listen to the organisations that have signed on to oppose this legislation. They should withdraw this legislation now and admit they have made a mistake, like they did with the shark cull in Western Australia.